Georgia Bulldogs living up to No. 1 ranking

Quarterback Stetson Bennett and tight end Brock Bowers had stellar games in Georgia's 48-7 dismantling of South Carolina Saturday. Video by Ryon Horne

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Could the 2022 Georgia football team actually be better than the one that only nine months ago won the program’s first national championship in 41 years?

Georgia coach Kirby Smart was asked that after the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs’ 48-7 win over South Carolina. That he didn’t totally dismiss the question was a statement in itself.

“This team’s way different than last year’s,” Smart said in the postgame news conference. “We don’t have 15 guys who are going to be drafted next year. We don’t. But we’ve got a lot of guys who are tough, they’re physical and they like practice. They buy in to being around each other, they’re connected and they like to compete with each other.”

It’s a good thing they like competing with each other because they’re not getting much competition from opposing teams so far. With Saturday’s lopsided road win over South Carolina in the SEC opener, the Bulldogs improved to 3-0 by a cumulative score of 130-10.

The domination is unlikely to end soon with Georgia playing host to Kent State (1-2) next Saturday (noon, SECN). The Bulldogs will return to league play on Oct. 1 at Missouri.

Improvement, if it is to come, will have to come in practice.

“The only days you can get better during the season is Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday,” Smart said. “It’s hard to go out there in a game and just take 30 snaps. We get 60, 70 snaps in practice each day. As long as they keep getting better and you guys don’t fill their heads up with so much stuff, we’ll be all right.”

Following are five things we learned from Georgia’s latest conquest:

Brock Bowers’ big day

Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett said he had a feeling that Brock Bowers was going to “go off” on Saturday. His premonition was right as the sophomore from Napa, Calif., scored three touchdowns and recorded a season-best 121 yards receiving on five catches.

“I told Carson (Beck) last night, for some reason, ‘Get the ball in 19′s hands tomorrow; I feel like he’s going to have a good one,’” Bennett said after having a pretty good day himself. “And he did.”

Indeed, Bowers scored the game’s first touchdown on a 5-yard run on a tight-end reverse right. He went high to pull down a pass from Bennett on a fade pattern early in the second quarter. But the best highlight was catching a play-action pass from Bennett over the middle on Georgia’s first possession of the second half. He shook an initial tackle attempt, then outran the South Carolina pursuit down the middle of the field for a 78-yard touchdown.

“Nothing was really different today, just things worked out the right way,” Bowers said. “I got certain coverages and the defense was doing certain things, and I was just able to come open a couple of times.”

Stetson Bennett thrives

Bennett got a lot of attention Saturday for his “throw-up touchdown” in the second quarter. But the reality is, he might have played his finest game as a Bulldog.

Bennett, who vomited on the field at one point, had a nifty defender-juking 11-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that gave him a rushing score in each of Georgia’s games this season. He could’ve had another running TD in the first quarter. However, video replay revealed his right foot actually caught some sideline chalk before he dove for the pylon on a would-be 17-yard touchdown. When he left the game in the third quarter, he actually was leading the Bulldogs in rushing with 36 yards.

Bennett was spinning it well, as well. He was 4-of-6 on third down and finished with 284 yards and two touchdowns on 16-of-23 passing. ESPN shared an interesting stat after the game: Bennett is the first quarterback to open a season with three straight games of 250 or more yards passing plus a rushing TD in each game.

“You expect perfection; it’s never going to be that, but you expect it,” Bennett said. “So once something good happens, you’re like, ‘OK, that was good.’”

By the way, Georgia does not have a turnover this season.

“That’s hard to do,” Smart said. “You just jinxed us, but we have to keep that going.”

Defensive swagger

The Bulldogs came into the game leading the nation in scoring defense at only 1.5 points per game. South Carolina’s touchdown with 53 seconds remaining was the first one allowed this season.

For the season, Georgia has given up 10 points. That is the program’s lowest three-game total since 1927.

“I feel like the statement we made today was something Coach Smart said at the beginning of the season: ‘We’re hunting and not being hunted,’” said sophomore linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson, who led the Bulldogs with six tackles and had two quarterback hurries. “We came out with that mentality. We were fast, physical and let them know that we were here and we’re not going to slack off.”

The Bulldogs added three more takeaways to improve to plus-6 for the season. They came on interceptions from safety Dan Jackson, linebacker Trezmen Marshall and safety Malaki Starks. Starks’ pick was his second of the season, and he returned it 42 yards to set up Georgia’s second touchdown of the day.

“The quarterback threw it right to him, he should catch it, right?” joked Smart. “Malaki played the wheel route, had his eyes in the right spot, made a play and had a pretty good return. He’s a good athlete.”

With 14 more points off turnovers, the Bulldogs have 31 for the season.

Playing short-handed

The Bulldogs were without a few key players for Saturday’s game but were not nearly as hamstrung as their host.

South Carolina had four defensive starters out with injuries: cornerback Cam Smith, safety R.J. Roderick, linebacker Mo Kaba and defensive end Jordan Strachan. Kaba and Strachan are out for year with knee injuries suffered in the previous game against Arkansas.

Georgia had to go without starting wide receiver A.D. Mitchell. The sophomore split end suffered a sprained ankle the previous week against Samford and did not travel to Columbia.

Freshman Dillon Bell started in Mitchell’s place and did not record a catch with just one target. Jackson Meeks and De’Nylon Morrissette also failed to haul in a pass.

“I think De’Nylon and Dillon Bell are talented players that have to grow up,” Smart said. “They can’t grow up fast enough. We needed them to play really well today. I thought both of them had some freshman jitters, and we have to get that out of them because they’re talented players.”

Cornerback Nyland Green (hamstring) also did not travel. And all-star defensive tackle Jalen Carter did not start and played only limited snaps due to a “lower-leg issue,” Smart said.

Arik Gilbert’s absence

Georgia fans are going to have to wait longer for the breakout game they’ve long anticipated for Arik Gilbert. The redshirt sophomore tight end did not make the trip to Columbia.

Asked why, Smart said: “All I can say is he didn’t make the trip for personal reasons. Hoping he gets back with us.”

The former five-star prospect from Marietta transferred to Georgia after a huge freshman season at LSU. However, he quit for personal reasons in preseason camp last year and did not play football for the Bulldogs last fall while remaining enrolled at UGA.

The 6-foot-5, 255-pound athlete stood out for the Bulldogs in the G-Day game last spring. But after Gilbert failed to log a catch in Georgia’s first two games of the season, Smart said last week that Gilbert was still struggling in some areas of the game.

Saturday, the Bulldogs brought freshman Oscar Delp with a group of five tight ends. Delp scored the first touchdown of his career on 28-yard reception from Beck.

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